PM vows ‘forceful’ response to Gaza as violence surges

Netanyahu meets with top security officials near border with Palestinian enclave after rocket strikes a home in Beersheba, IDF bombs 20 targets in Strip

From L to R: National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman and IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi hold a situational assessment near the Gaza border on October 17, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense)
From L to R: National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman and IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi hold a situational assessment near the Gaza border on October 17, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that Israel would “act forcefully” in response to a predawn rocket attack from the Gaza Strip that struck a Beersheba home, as a shaky calm appeared to return to the area.

The comments came after the prime minister met with top security officials for emergency consultations over the flareup, which sent already high border tensions skyrocketing. The Israel Defense Forces said it bombed at least 20 targets in Gaza in response to the missile attack.

“Israel views with utmost gravity the attacks against it on the fence, on the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip, on Beersheba — everywhere. I said at the start of the cabinet meeting this week that if the attacks don’t end, we’ll end them,” Netanyahu said in the IDF Gaza Division’s headquarters near the Strip.

“I want to say to you today: Israel will act very forcefully,” the prime minister added.

The security consultations included Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, Shin Bet security service chief Nadav Argaman and other top officials, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

During his visit to the Gaza Division, Netanyahu also met with the group of soldiers who spotted a group of Palestinians preparing to launch a large mortar shell at southern Israel and called in an aircraft, which bombed them before they could fire their projectile.

The prime minister also met with the heads of the local governments.

Egypt and the UN have reportedly scrambled to try to negotiate a calm between the sides since the rocket attack on Beersheba, which came days after Israeli leaders had already threatened a wider offensive over near-daily border riots and launches of incendiary balloons and kites.

In the predawn hours of Wednesday morning, a mid-range rocket from the Gaza Strip bearing a heavy 20 kilogram (44 pound) warhead struck a house in the southern city of Beersheba, causing significant damage to the structure.

An Israeli sapper checks a house after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip at the southern Israeli city of Beersheba on October 17, 2018. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

The residents were spared injury as they had rushed into their bomb shelter after the incoming rocket siren sounded in the city.

A second rocket was also fired from the Gaza Strip on Thursday morning. It landed off the coast of the greater Tel Aviv area, known in Israel as Gush Dan.

In response, the Israel Defense Forces carried out strikes on some 20 targets in the Strip connected to the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group and other organizations in the coastal enclave.

Hamas and the second largest terror group in the Strip, the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, officially denied carrying out the rocket attack, saying it was “irresponsible” and undermined an Egyptian-led negotiation effort.

A Palestinian man walks on debris following a retaliatory Israeli airstrike near the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah after a rocket struck a home in the Israeli city of Beersheba on October 17, 2018. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Speaking to Israel Radio, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who is a member of the security cabinet, accused Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of orchestrating the flareup in violence, and cautioned against launching a full-blown war in Gaza, which, he suggested, was what the West Bank-based Abbas wanted.

“We must aggressively respond with force to the rocket strike on Beersheba, but there is a difference between that and being drawn into a full campaign in Gaza,” Steinitz told the radio station. “This whole flareup was caused by Abbas and we should not let him draw us in.

“If we go to war in the Strip we will call it ‘Abbas’s war,’ because he is the architect of this flareup.”

Steinitz said that, contrary to comments from Defense Minister Liberman, Israel has not yet exhausted the chances of reaching an arrangement to calm the situation in Gaza. Egyptian mediators, who have so far failed to produce an agreement between Israel and Hamas to end the violence, were in Gaza on Wednesday.

Israeli security forces inspect a building that was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba on October 17, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hamas, which seeks to destroy Israel, wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Abbas’s Palestinian Authority in 2007. Israel holds Hamas responsible for all attacks that come out of the Gaza Strip.

Abbas, who is demanding a resumption of control of the territory, has been working to undermine Hamas’s government in Gaza, and in recent months has levied severe sanctions on the Strip, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis there.

Opposition leader Avi Gabbay on Wednesday morning accused the government under Netanyahu of bungling the situation in Gaza and bolstering Hamas’s status.

“We are tired of a government that is strengthening Hamas. We are tired of a government that is enabling Hamas to strike and disrupt the lives of residents in the south,” he tweeted. “We are tired of Netanyahu’s security failures and Liberman’s empty slogans and we are tired of a cabinet that is mixing politics and state security.”

Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid at a plenary session at the Knesset on September 17, 2018. (Flash90)

MK Yair Lapid, who leads the opposition Yesh Atid party, tweeted that Hamas no longer fears Israel, and that the political leadership is entangled in public disputes between Liberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett on security policies.

“A direct hit on a home in Beersheba. There are no [school] studies in the city,” he said. “Hamas is no longer afraid and Netanyahu is hiding behind the Bennett-Liberman spats. Those who are clamoring for credit for successes should also take responsibility for failures. For how long will Hamas dictate the situation in the south?”

On Tuesday, Liberman warned that the military was gearing up for a major strike on Gaza to stop ongoing violence.

“I’ve held a series of meetings with the head of the Southern Command, the head of the [Gaza] Division, the brigade commanders, the battalion commanders, also with soldiers. My impression is that they all have reached the understanding that the situation as it is today cannot continue,” he said.

Beersheba Mayor Ruvik Danilovich on Wednesday criticized the government for not bringing calm to the south.

“This is an impossible situation,” he told Hadashot TV news. “In general, what has been going on in the Negev and the south in recent months is an unbearable situation… and we call on the government to put an end to it. It is impossible to live in a situation like this, no one is eager for a fight, but if this is repeated, something must be done.”

Earlier Danilovich canceled all school studies in the city until further notice.

It was only the second rocket fired at Beersheba since the 2014 Gaza war. The previous rocket, which struck a field north of Beersheba on August 9, came as Palestinians fired dozens of projectiles at Israeli communities along the Gaza border.

Rocket attacks on Beersheba — home to more than 200,000 people — are rare and considered a major escalation.

A second rocket fired from Gaza Wednesday morning fell out at sea across from the greater Tel Aviv area, known in Israel as Gush Dan. The military would only confirm that it struck “off the coast of a large city.”

Palestinian demonstrators burn tires as they demonstrate during the “Great March of Return” on the Gaza-Israel border in Rafah, Gaza on October 12, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Since March 30, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have participated in a series of protests and riots dubbed the “Great March of Return,” which have mostly involved the burning of tires and rock-throwing along the security fence, but have also seen shooting attacks and bombings as well as the sending of incendiary balloons and kites into Israel.

There have also been several flareups that took Israel and Hamas to the brink of war, with Palestinians firing rockets into Israel and the IDF responding with airstrikes.

Some 155 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more have been injured in the clashes with IDF troops, according to AP figures; Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of the dead were its members. One Israeli soldier was shot dead by a sniper on the border.

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